The ratings were begun 14 years ago, after the United States enacted an anti-trafficking law and the United Nations adopted the Palermo Protocol. Both call for countries to criminalize trafficking, punish offenders and provide shelter and support to victims. The State Department’s annual human trafficking report, released on Friday, is an important part of this effort, systematically chronicling abuses and government efforts to stop them.
Thailand has long been a magnet for migrants from neighboring countries. These migrants now number two to three million people. Tens of thousands of them are victims of trafficking — vulnerable men, women and children, some forced into the Thai sex trade, others pushed into garment manufacturing and domestic work. Now comes growing evidence that many are also being exploited in fishing and fishing-related industries.
According to the 432-page report, men from Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand are forced to work on Thai fishing boats that travel throughout Southeast Asia and beyond. Many pay brokers to help them find work in Thailand, and are then sold to shipowners. Under threat of jail or deportation and desperate for income, they are forced to work 18 to 20 hours a day, seven days a week, for very low wages, and are often threatened and beaten. The exact scope of this abuse is unknown but the report cited two surveys that suggested between 17 percent and 57 percent of the fishermen were treated this way.
The report builds on recent investigations by Reuters, theEnvironmental Justice Foundation and The Guardian newspaper, which found that slavery is central to the shrimp industry’s success. So is corruption. The State Department said Thai civilian and military officials and the police profited from smuggling members of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority who are fleeing oppression in Myanmar and Bangladesh, into the country, holding them in detention centers and then selling them to brokers and boat owners.
Thailand is a treaty ally of the United States. For two years, the department placed Thailand on a watch list, signifying dissatisfaction with its inaction on human trafficking. Last week, it finally listed Thailand among the worst violators of the standards set in American law, in part because “the government demonstrated few efforts to address these trafficking crimes.” Malaysia and Venezuela also made the worst list for the first time. There are 20 other countries in this bottom category, including North Korea, Iran and Russia. The United States and 30 other countries in the top category are considered compliant with the standards; the rest are somewhere in between.
The revelations about Thailand should persuade major global corporations, including Costco, Walmart, Carrefour and Tesco, that their business models have to change. They should refuse to import from fishermen or companies that have been reliably identified by watchdog groups as using slave labor. They also need to pressure the Thai government to ensure that abusers who hire trafficked employees are prosecuted and that the victims are protected and treated with respect.
Under American law, aid and other assistance can be withheld if countries do not crack down on trafficking; Washington should not hesitate to use this tool when it can be effective. Consumers have a role to play, too, by refusing to purchase products produced with slave labor.
The saddest part is that Thailand is only one slice of the problem. Slave labor has also been documented on ships flying the flags of Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong, among others. It is estimated that there could be 29 million victims of all sorts of human trafficking around the globe, including thousands in the United States.
There has been progress over the past 14 years in raising awareness of the problem and in dealing with it, but as the State Department report all too painfully shows, there is still a long way to go.